When we think of New York City today we think of a liberal stronghold, the bluest of the blue. But 150 years ago, during the Civil War, it was a southern stronghold. And it got a lot of its anti-Lincoln sentiment from its feral Irish-Catholic population.
Blame it all on Eli Whitney.
He invented the cotton gin in 1794, which made cotton production easy and profitable. John Strausbaugh looks at New York City’s addiction to King Cotton and its consequences in "City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War" (Twelve Books). Strausbaugh points out that seven of every ten slaves worked directly or indirectly in cotton. “The city was more than just complicit in maintaining the institution,” he maintains. “The plantation system and New York City spurred each other’s exponential growth in the first half of the nineteenth century.” The south was soon pouring at least $200-million a year into the city’s economy. “Cotton came to represent,” Strausbaugh says, “a whopping 40 percent of all the goods shipped out of the port of New York.”
Strausbaugh is very familiar with New York and wrote "The Village," which could be called the definitive biography of the quirky piece of real estate known as Greenwich Village. IrishCentral asked Strausbaugh if his research on the Village led him to write "City of Sedition"? “I love researching and writing about New York history,” said. “It’s so deep and rich and messy and crowded with astounding characters. After 'The Village' I was pitching a sort of companion volume, a history of the Lower East Side, when Sean Desmond, the editor of Twelve, asked if I’d be interested in doing the Civil War instead. I knew it’s a fascinating period in the city’s history and jumped at the chance.”
New York during the Civil War was filled with colorful characters: Walt Whitman (the sainted poet wasn’t a great fan of the Irish either, labeling them “bog-trotters”), Fernando Wood (New York’s 75th mayor was a conman in the Trump mold), Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes (the undisputed no-nonsense leader of the Irish), Thomas Francis Meagher (New Irelander turned Civil War general), John O’Mahony (the leader of the American Fenians), Matthew Brady (famed photographer), Herman Melville (failed novelist), Edwin Booth (famous Shakespearian actor with a brother problem) and, of course, Boss Tweed…need we say more? When asked if writing about this eccentric group made his work easier, Strausbaugh replied: “Absolutely. One story is wilder, funnier, more outrageous or inspiring than the next. It was great fun to weave their individual life stories into a tapestry.”
With characters like Hughes and Meagher it’s no wonder that the Irish play a prominent part in "City of Sedition." The Irish were already in New York by the time of the Great Famine, but the famine flooded New York with more impoverished Irish in the aftermath of “Black 47.”
“[The famine] had an immense impact,” conceded Strausbaugh. “There were Irish in New York from the time of the Revolution, but their numbers were relatively low—and many were lace-curtain Irish Protestants. The famine brought a tsunami of desperately poor, rural Irish Catholics into the city. It totally shifted the economic, social and political map. They went from terrible hardship in the Irish countryside to terrible hardship in the big city. Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine, scooped them up as voters and as ballot-box-stuffers; conservative leaders like James Gordon Bennett, editor of the Herald, whipped them into fear and hatred of blacks; so-called ‘native’ New Yorkers were as fiercely prejudiced toward them as they were toward blacks—more, really, because (a) there were vastly more Irish in New York than blacks, and (b) because the Irish were Catholics, and Protestant New Yorkers feared and hated Catholics.”
“There, in a curious quirk of history,” Strausbaugh writes in 'City of Sedition,' “[the Irish] developed an intimate love-hate relationship with poor black New Yorkers. They lived together, worked together, played together, learned each other’s music and dances, and slept together despite the authorities’ constantly passing ordinances against race-mixing, called ‘amalgamation’ at the time. They clung together to the very lowest rung of the city’s social ladder. Racist stereotypes, bandied about with a complete lack of conscience by other New Yorkers, were startlingly similar for the Irish and the Negro: Both were lazy, drunken, sex-crazed, stupid, and apelike.”
The leader of Catholic New York was one Archbishop John Hughes, maybe the most colorful prelate in the history of the New York Archdiocese. He was born in County Tyrone in 1797, was called “Dagger John” because of the stiletto-like crucifix he fashioned, wore a bad toupee, and took guff from no one—especially the nativist Know-Nothings who were fond of burning down Catholic churches.
Strausbaugh colorfully wrote that Hughes “was said to act more like a Roman gladiator or an Irish chieftain than a meek follower of Christ…He famously warned that if a single Catholic came to harm, ‘we shall turn this city into a second Moscow,’ a reference to Moscow’s residents burning down their city in 1812 rather than let Napoleon have it.”
IrishCentral wanted to know what made “Dagger John” unique. “His feistiness,” Strausbaugh replied without hesitation. “He was fearless in standing up to Protestant, ‘nativist’ New Yorkers on behalf of his flock.”
In contrast to the Catholics were the abolitionists, a sullen lot. “Funny,” laughed Strausbaugh, “I hadn’t thought of them as ‘sullen,’ but it’s not an inappropriate description. Basically, abolitionists—white abolitionists, as opposed to black abolitionists—were of New England stock and Protestant. American Protestants lived in dread that the country was being overrun by ‘Papists,’ who would end democracy and deliver the nation to Rome. As silly as that sounds, it was quite a prevalent concern. So you get this odd-looking dichotomy of abolitionists being quite progressive and ‘liberal’ on the issue of slavery, but quite conservative and benighted regarding the Irish.”
“While the abolitionists were making enemies of the Irish workers,” writes Strausbaugh, “anti-abolitionist forces in the city were wooing and exploiting them. One of their favorite tactics, which they would use right into the Civil War years, was to scare workers with terrible predictions that if the millions of enslaved blacks in the South were freed they’d flood into northern cities and take away all the work…
"With the flood of Famine Irish into the Lower East Side in the 1840s and 1850s, the immigrants’ struggle to set themselves apart from blacks and be accepted by whites turned mean and hard. The Irish now developed a fierce strain of anti-black and anti-abolitionist sentiment. Clinging desperately to their low-level jobs, Irish workers hated the abolitionist movement they feared would unleash millions of freed black workers to flood the city and replace them.”
And Dagger John was having none of it. “He lashed abolitionism as a dangerous ‘mischief,’ ” wrote Strausbaugh. Hughes seemed to waiver in moral authority when confronted with the evil of slavery. “Because Catholicism was so beleaguered in America at the time,” Strausbaugh told IrishCentral, “the Catholic Church was not very forthcoming about slavery, not wanting to make enemies on any side of the issue. The Church’s basic stance, which Hughes espoused, was that so long as slavery was legal in the South, owning slaves was not a sin, though mistreating them was. Also, he was Irish, head of an Irish flock, and the Irish had decided to be on the anti-abolitionist side of the issue.”
With the start of the Civil War the Irish—led by Hughes and the likes of Thomas Francis Meagher, Michael Corcoran and John O’Mahony—stood by the Union. “Archbishop Hughes, no fan of Lincoln or blacks,” wrote Strausbaugh, “decided that fighting for their adopted country presented his Irish Catholic flock an opportunity to silence their Know-Nothing detractors. The leaders of the Fenian Brotherhood were of two minds about the war. Combat would give their fighters experience they could later put to good use against the British, but inevitably it would also thin their ranks, even in the short and glorious war everyone expected.” In all 150,000 Irish fought heroically for the Union, one-third of them from around New York City.
The Irish contribution to the Civil War—led by men like Meagher, O’Mahony and Corcoran—helped to make the Irish “acceptable” to many Americans. “They were very visible figures,” said Strausbaugh, “and at first highly celebrated, which did a lot of good for the image of the Irish. The New York Times noted that Corcoran, specifically, one of the few Union heroes of the First Battle of Bull Run, did a lot to improve the Irish image in the city.”
Later, suspicious of Lincoln’s tactics, “…Archbishop Hughes warned [Meagher] of a rumor in the city that Lincoln was really prosecuting the war to free the slaves; if it was true, [Hughes] said Irishmen ‘will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.’ ”
Although Lincoln made his name in New York at his speech at Cooper Union in 1860, New York was not Lincoln Territory. “Principally because of New York City’s long and deep economic ties to the international cotton trade,” says Strausbaugh, “the majority of New Yorkers saw it in their personal interests to support the South and plantation slavery. They saw Lincoln as the candidate of the abolitionists, and were convinced he’d move to end Southern slavery if elected—despite his saying, many times and in many ways, that he had no intention of doing so. Thus many New Yorkers were hostile to him. New Yorkers voted against him 2-to-1 in 1860 and again in 1864.”
However, with the enactment of the draft in 1863 Hughes said, “The people should insist on being drafted, and so bring this unnatural strife to a close.”
The draft also brought all the simmering racial antagonism to a boil. “An explosive one,” said Strausbaugh. “After an initial flurry of signing up when the war started, the horrors of battle had reduced volunteerism in the city to a trickle. And the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation had changed the agenda of the North’s war from preserving the Union to ending slavery—a goal many New Yorkers had no interest in fighting and dying for.
Furthermore, the draft allowed a man to buy his way out for $300. That was a year’s wages for a working man. Meanwhile, wartime inflation had doubled the price of staples, while workers’ wages stagnated or decreased. So a lot of grievances had been building up among the city’s white workers, and they saw the draft as the final insult. The first names in New York City were drawn on a Saturday; the rioting started that Monday. One historian has noted that while the draft was the immediate spark, it was truly more of a citywide workers’ revolt. They exploded in what’s still the deadliest rioting in American history—officially 119 deaths, though many New Yorkers believed that number was very low.”
At the end of the riots Archbishop Hughes addressed his people: “Men of New York. They call you riotous but I cannot see a riotous face among you….I have been hurt by the reports that you are rioters. You cannot imagine that I could hear these things without being pained grievously. Is there not some way by which you can stop these proceedings, and support the laws, of which none have been enacted against you as Irishmen and Catholics?...Would it not be better for you to retire quietly?” Hughes would die the following year.
“As for the draft riots,” says Strausbaugh, “[Hughes] was treading a fine line. Other New Yorkers were blaming the Irish for the riots. He didn’t want to play into that, but at the same time he wanted to discourage his flock from participating. It left him in rather a quandary, simultaneously denying the Irish had participated and asking them to stop.”
The war, mercifully, finally came to an end in 1865. As for the Irish, they would continue to use Hughes’ schools, hospitals and orphanages as they dug themselves out of poverty to become prominent in every field of commerce and government. When last seen, the Civil War veteran Fenians were quixotically invading Canada to liberate it from British hegemony. They would soon fade, but their quest for Irish independence would be taken up by a new wave of immigrant Irishmen, men like John Devoy, Thomas Clarke, James Connolly and John MacBride—all of whom would use New York as a launching pad for the 1916 Easter Rising.
New York, of course, went on to become the “Big Apple,” the greatest city in the world. But as much as things change, they seem to stay the same. The Know-Nothings are gone, but 155 years later nativism is still deeply ingrained in Americans. “I’m one of those people who believe history is valuable in its own right and doesn’t need to be ‘relevant’ to the present,” concludes Strausbaugh. “Then again, it’s sure hard not to see parallels between the racism, anti-immigration sentiments and fear-mongering demagogues then and now. (And one of those demagogues today happens to be from New York City!) I think it would take someone who knows a lot more about sociology and political science than I do to explain why some of these attitudes don’t seem to have changed, but I have to think that feelings of economic insecurity—reality-based or just imagined—have much to do with it.”
*Dermot McEvoy is the author of "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising" and "Irish Miscellany" (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on his website and Facebook page.